UCLA earned commitment from 30 prospects in the 2016 class, and as of the time of writing, the Bruins had received 29 signed national letters of intent, giving UCLA a substantial class. With it being such a huge class, and such a highly rated one, UCLA obviously filled a lot of needs. Yesterday, we went over the offensive class, and, today, we're going to go through what needs were addressed on the defensive side of the ball, how each position group could be affected by the incoming recruits, and what needs remain for the 2017 class to address.
Today, we're going to break down the defensive class. In total, UCLA signed 13 defensive recruits, which includes Brandon Burton, who we project will start out at safety. The Bruins signed seven defensive linemen (which includes Breland Brandt, since that's where we have him rated, even if his position might be in flux depending on what sort of defense UCLA ends up running), three linebackers, and three defensive backs, including Burton. Below, we're going to go position by position, breaking down how successful UCLA was in recruiting each position, and whether the Bruins met their overall needs. We'll also have a special section for special teams at the bottom, as UCLA took in a kicker, a punter, and a longsnapper this cycle.
UCLA desperately, desperately needed numbers on the defensive line heading into next year, with general attrition taking its toll along with an apparent upcoming move to a 4-3 defense. Angus McClure and the Bruin staff did exactly what it needed to do, bringing in six true defensive linemen along with Brandt, who might best project as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, if that's indeed what UCLA is moving toward. You can easily see now that UCLA will have the numbers to fill out a depth chart for a 4-3 defense, making a switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 all the more realistic.
The jewel of the class is pretty clearly Boss Tagaloa, the player we identified at this time last year as the most important recruit in the 2016 cycle for UCLA. Tagaloa gives UCLA a very talented defensive tackle, one that gives UCLA a bit of flexibility, in that he can absolutely be a true nose tackle for the Bruins if they opt to stick with a 3-4 to some extent. Tagaloa could very well play early, as could JC defensive tackle Nick Terry, who drew very good reviews from those who saw him during his junior college days. Terry will also be in this spring, which could give him a leg up on earning playing time.
UCLA also landed some guys who could be inside or outside players depending on the scheme. Osa Odighizuwa could play end in a 3-4 or possibly even move inside to a three-tech in a 4-3, while the same could be said for Jake Burton, who's bigger and longer than Odighizuwa. Chigozie Nnoruka is obviously a bit more of an unknown, but his film certainly shows a player with considerable size and athleticism who could make an impact down the line for the Bruins. Marcus Moore is a good athlete who could be a nice fit at defensive end, and actually played some tight end in high school, if you're sleuthing around for possibilities to switch around.
Brandt will be interesting to see. If UCLA does move to a 4-3, a player with his length and athleticism could make a big impact at defensive end as a pass rusher. He has the the frame to be one of those 6'4 or 6'5, 245 pound defensive ends who just make life hell for opposing offensive tackles. Perhaps he could also stick at linebacker if he keeps his weight down, but we're intrigued by the idea of him playing end in a 4-3.
In any case, UCLA did almost exactly what it needed to do on the defensive line this cycle, adding much needed size, bulk, and overall numbers to the depth chart. With Tagaloa, the Bruins have a potential star, and they added solid depth outside of him as well.
For a first year assistant in Scott White to pull in a class of this caliber was extremely impressive. The major need for UCLA in this class was to replace Myles Jack, which is, in theory, impossible, yet, stunningly, UCLA possibly did just that in landing five-star, uber-athlete Mique Juarez, who has similar traits to Jack. UCLA also landed Lokeni Toailoa and Krys Barnes, two players that you could absolutely see growing into starters down the road for the Bruins. Brandt, obviously, was a big get as well, and as we talked about in the defensive line section, it remains to be seen what UCLA will end up doing there.
Juarez would probalby be our pick from the group to get the most playing time this season. His versatility means that he would fit in pretty much perfectly in either a 4-3 or a 3-4, and he has the full package of tools to be utilized in a variety of different ways. He can cover, hit, blitz, and do so many other things defensively that it's going to be hard to keep him off the field. He'll also likely be another two-way player for UCLA, since the Bruins like to do that and Juarez certainly has the athleticism to make an impact on the offensive side of the ball.
Toailoa is a tough interior linebacker who has great instincts and a nose for the ball. Getting into a college strength program is going to be great for him, as it'll help him continue to work on his quickness and speed, but he's a downhill linebacker who should be a good run stuffer from the get go. Barnes is a little more athletic, with the ability to range sideline to sideline, and he has a little more versatility as well, with some ability to play either outside or in. Brandt, if he sticks at linebacker, is almost certainly an outside guy who will fill into that pass rush role occupied by guys like Deon Hollins and Keisean Lucier-South.
It was a big class for UCLA, which reloaded its linebacker depth chart with very talented players. White certainly proved himself as a very good up-and-coming recruiter, and it's going to be fun to see what kind of class he pulls in next.
It was a light class of defensive backs after Demetrice Martin pulled in a pretty substantial class a year ago. The Bruins landed two true defensive backs in Leni Toailoa and Keyon Riley, along with an athlete who will likely slide into the defensive backfield in Brandon Burton. Even with the light numbers, snagging one of the very good to elite corners in the region this year -- one of either Jack Jones, David Long, or Kentrell Love, among others -- would have pushed this class up a level. That said, UCLA did get a potentially very good safety in Burton, an intriguing, versatile athlete in Riley, and a young player with plenty of growth potential in Toailoa.
Burton is the big get in this class. He had a very good senior year, and has that great combination of toughness, instincts, and leadership that you like to see in a safety. He's also an underrated athlete, with the ability to make an impact at either receiver or safety, and with his work ethic, it's going to be fun to watch him develop over the course of the next couple of years. Riley is still pretty raw from a technical perspective, but there's a lot to like about him from an athletic standpoint. He's going to get his first shot at corner, which is generally thought to be an easier position to pick up than safety, especially at the college level. He certainly gives UCLA some more size at corner, with a 6'2, 190 pound frame already as a senior in high school.
Toailoa is maybe the most interesting. He's basically a full year younger than his brother Lokeni, but is in the same grade. He has a nice frame, and could continue to get bigger and stronger and maybe even outgrow the defensive back positions entirely and become a linebacker like his brother. As it stands, we'd have to imagine he'll redshirt his first year, and maybe even sit his second year as he continues to mature and develop, but he could be one of those guys we're talking about in an entirely different context within a couple of years.
UCLA needs to focus on cornerback recruiting heading into the next cycle, with Ishmael Adams, Fabian Moreau, and Marcus Rios (we believe, not yet sure on his redshirt situation) all graduating after next season. There are some good corner prospects in the program, sure, but the Bruins need to get probably two high-level corner prospects in this next class to sustain the talent level for the next couple of seasons.
UCLA never seems to have trouble reloading on special teams with highly rated kickers, punters, and snappers, and this year was no different -- it's almost as if specialists, like most players, would like to play and go to school in a location where the sun is shining virtually all the time. Anyway, the class probably couldn't have ended better for the Bruins, with UCLA landing excellent prospects at kicker in J.J. Molson, punter in Austin Kent, and longnsapper in Johnny Den Bleyker.
All three project to start this year. Molson and Kent are virtual shoo-ins, and while UCLA is bringing in a walk-on longsnapper as well, we have to imagine Den Bleyker, being a scholarship guy, will have the first opportunity in any competition. Molson has a big, accurate leg, and he should start at a higher level than Ka'imi Fairbairn did his freshman year, while Kent may be better as a true freshman than anyone UCLA trotted out at punter last season.
The big key will be figuring out which one of the two kickers will handle kickoffs. Both have done it, and Molson has a big leg, but achieving the consistency that Fairbairn had on kickoffs will be key. That was an important weapon last year given that UCLA's kick coverage was not particularly strong.